Simon Heffer 18 June 2014.
Tony Blair’s deceit over Iraq still contaminates British politics and continues to have the most shocking and lethal consequences. Time to lance this boil says Daily Mail’s Simon Heffer.
With allies of Al Qaeda running amok in Iraq and heading for Baghdad, the disastrous legacy of Britain’s entanglement there with the invasion of 2003 becomes ever more blindingly obvious.
Obvious to everyone, that is, except the man who ordered it.
Seven years after leaving office, and 11 years after British troops flooded across the southern border, Tony Blair continues to cause outrage and bewilderment over Iraq.
Noting the eruption of the jihad there, Mr Blair professes that ‘we have to liberate ourselves from the notion that “we” have caused this. We haven’t.’
Only a handful of American neo-conservatives, most of them discredited and seeking to protect their reputations, too, would agree with him. To most people, he appears a self-serving fantasist with blood on his hands.
Saddam Hussein was evil and vicious. However, the mixture of repression and corruption with which he governed meant Iraq was spared the Sunni-on-Shia violence that is tearing the country apart now, threatening the entire region and, with it, the security and prosperity of the West.
Some would question Mr Blair’s sanity. Indeed, a former close friend, the novelist Robert Harris, did so only recently, suggesting he had a ‘messiah complex’.
It takes a rare politician to admit any error, let alone one based on a lie — the sexed-up ‘dodgy dossier’ Mr Blair put before Parliament in March 2003 to support his contention that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — which cost the lives of 173 British servicemen and six servicewomen.
But the lengths to which he is going even now to defend his blind support for George W. Bush are embarrassing as well as outrageous.
There have been, and still are, frequent calls for Mr Blair to be arrested for alleged war crimes, taken to the International Court at the Hague and put on trial. I have met many senior lawyers who would love that to happen, but none who actually thinks it will, given the constitutional framework within which Mr Blair operated.
We still await, too, the outcome of the inquiry convened in 2009 under Sir John Chilcot into Britain’s role in the Iraq war.
Chilcot stopped taking evidence in 2011, but endless legal challenges have held up publication of a report said to be a million words long — and key evidence from exchanges between Mr Blair and President Bush may never be published.
But something must be done to hold Mr Blair to account.
Even though he has left domestic public life — even if he does remain active internationally as, ironically enough, Middle East Peace Envoy — his apparent deceit over Iraq still contaminates British politics, bedevils our foreign policy and, as we have seen, continues to have the most shocking and lethal consequences.
And it also has continuing consequences for Mr Blair. He is treated like a pariah in his own country rather than with the respect, however grudging, normally due to one who served for a decade as Prime Minister.
He is said to live in dread of people trying to perform a citizen’s arrest on him for his alleged war crimes, as at least two Britons have thus far, in London and Hong Kong.
However, our constitution does provide a remedy, and for the sake of all parties to this argument it should not be dismissed as either obsolete or too extreme.
It is that Parliament should discuss whether to impeach Mr Blair, and have the question of his culpability thrashed out in public, at Westminster.
Everyone remembers how the U.S. President Bill Clinton was impeached in Washington over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and may feel it is a uniquely American political phenomenon. That’s not the case.
In Britain, impeachment is the process by which the House of Commons votes to have someone, usually but not inevitably a high public official, put on trial before the House of Lords for alleged crimes, or for criminally damaging the public interest.
A Select Committee of MPs draws up the evidence to take this serious step, and would provide prosecutors to pursue the case before the Lords.
A simple majority is required to convict, at which point a sentence can be passed, which could, in theory, involve Tony Blair being sent to prison.
The defendant can have his own legal representation, and the case can be presented in every bit as much detail as in a court of law.
No one has been impeached since 1806 — the last was a peer named Lord Melville, accused of misappropriating public funds from the Admiralty during the Napoleonic Wars. He was acquitted, but he never held office again.
In 1999, a Select Committee decreed the procedure was obsolete, and in a modern parliamentary democracy was unnecessary. But perhaps the allegations levelled at Mr Blair have proved them wrong.
Impeachment may be a very old-fashioned means of bringing a serving or retired high official to account, but it could have been made for today’s world where people are angry about the misconduct of politicians, but have inadequate legal redress against them through conventional courts.
Impeachment is a useful means for a court composed of people who understand the political process, testing whether a politician or official has behaved criminally, and either very prominently acquitting him, or sanctioning him.
The procedure was first suggested for Mr Blair in 2004 by Adam Price, a Plaid Cymru MP. The element of vindictiveness in that campaign counted against it, which is why it is important to stress that impeaching Mr Blair would also give him the chance to set out his case properly before the British people rather than in superficial soundbites, and to clear his name — or otherwise.
The Committee that suggested the procedure was obsolete did so on the advice of an official known as the Clerk of the Parliaments. That was merely his view, however: for impeachment to be removed from our constitution altogether requires primary legislation, and none has been forthcoming.
Someone in the Commons would need, as Adam Price did a decade ago, to propose a motion for Mr Blair’s impeachment. He or she would need to present evidence to support their case, and the impeachment would only proceed if the Commons voted for it to do so.
The evidence offered by the MP would form the basis of a document called the Article of Impeachment, which would be drawn up by a committee of MPs, probably including the Government’s law officers and other MPs with legal experience.
That document would then be given to the House of Lords, which sets a date for the hearing, pending which Black Rod — chief officer of the House of Commons — may detain the accused in the cells under Big Ben.
So what charges should be laid at the former Labour Prime Minister’s door?
Did Mr Blair know he was lying to Parliament when he presented the ‘dodgy dossier’ — which argued that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed against the West in just 45 minutes — and therefore gain Parliament’s authority to go to war on the basis of a deception?
Is he therefore responsible for the 179 deaths of British service personnel, never mind the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died in the conflict? And for the £9 billion it cost us?
Above all, has he damaged the interests of this country by creating long-term instability in the region because of a decision that was either criminally negligent or possibly taken on a fraudulent basis?
The irony is that Blair’s justification for war was the presumed threat to this nation from Saddam Hussein — a threat that never existed.
Yet now in the blazing ruins of Iraq which are the legacy of that war, British jihadis are fighting with the Islamic forces butchering their way across the land.
Already, the leaders of that army of extremists is encouraging such foreign fighters to return to their own countries — including ours — and unleash terror attacks on home soil.
So what is to be done?
I suspect that as things worsen in Iraq — and they will — getting a majority in the Commons to impeach Mr Blair might not be impossible. What the outcome in the Lords would be, when they decide on his guilt or innocence, would depend on the evidence.
The public is crying out for that evidence to be heard. And impeachment is the right constitutional tool for a former Prime Minister accused of such behaviour.
It would lance this boil once and for all. Not only that, statesmen would in future know that however powerful they were, there was still a means of Parliament holding them to account and, if necessary, punishing them.
And we would finally know, once and for all, just what Tony Blair’s true place in history should be.